Thousands of people, dressed in black, attended the burial of 73 victims of recent violence. (photo: Benue State News)

A spate of violence attributed to ethnic Fulani herdsmen in central Nigeria has seen dozens killed since the turn of year.

In Benue State, violence has claimed 80 lives and forced 80,000 to flee.

The funerals on 11 January for 73 of the victims in Makurdi, Benue’s capital, were broadcast live. Among those killed were seven members of Benue State Livestock Guards – a special paramilitary unit set up by the Benue state governor to ensure the full implementation of the recent ban on open grazing – their vehicle burnt and an undetermined number of others injured in separate attacks.

Thousands of people, dressed in black, attended the burial, referred to as “Black Thursday” on social media.

In neighbouring Taraba State, at least 55 people were initially confirmed killed in the town of Lau, by suspected Fulani herdsmen on 10 January. The toll is expected to rise as the violence continues.

The next day, David Misal, spokesman for the Taraba state police command, confirmed that three people were killed and six others injured in Maisamari, a commercial suburb in the state’s southeast, when unknown gunmen attacked a home hosting a dance festival.

The acting chairman of the local government area, Godwin Sol, said an earlier security order had banned cultural activities and festivals in the area. The herdsmen nonetheless converged from surrounding villages for a dance festival in Maisamari. Security forces were sent to disperse the crowd, which relocated to the house.

Reports also suggest that villages between Numan in Adamawa State and the Taraba state capital of Jalingo have been deserted. Security is limited and ordinary citizens have no means of defending themselves.

Sources in Jalingo said more than 70 people have been killed, and there are fears the figure could rise.

Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, president of Catholic Bishops of Nigeria and the archbishop of Jos, expressed frustration at the continued government reference to “unknown gunmen” waging violence.

“Why should gunmen be unknown for years?” Kaigama wrote on The Nigerian Lawyer website. “They kill innocent people and destroy their means of livelihood and yet they are unknown: we have security agents mandated to ensure the safety of all citizen and within all military and paramilitary agencies we have intelligent units and yet these killers remain unknown.

“I can only describe this as being pervasive and it demonstrates the absence of political will to identify who these unknown gunmen are: we should stop pretending and stop being hypocritical, common sense tells us that these people are known but I think what is lacking is the political will and the sense of character to call a spade a spade.”

Professor Yusufu Turaki, Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Church and Society at Jos ECWA Theological Seminary in Nigeria, told World Watch Monitor about the origins of the violence in the Middle Belt.

In the video below, he says “ethnicity” and “religion” are the two motivating factors.

President Muhammed Buhari, criticised for not doing enough to curb the violence, has condemned the killings. He also announced the deployment of Special Forces to Benue.

Shehu Sani, a Nigerian senator representing Kaduna State, has urged President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to condemn “the repeated horrors perpetrated on farmers by the herdsmen”.

“The mass murder in southern Kaduna, Taraba, Benue, Numan [Adamawa State] and other affected places are unpardonable and despicable crime[s],” he said in a press statement.

These killings and bloodletting threaten the peace, stability and unity of our country. Every attack erodes the credibility and integrity of the present administration and every drop of blood stains the conscience of all men in the position of power.”

The senator also urged the government to stop “protecting, pampering, paying, politicising and prevaricating” over the Fulani herdsmen.

The governor of Ekiti State, Ayo Fayose, has said Nigerians have lost trust in the current government to secure and protect lives.

In addition to grazing restrictions passed in Ekiti, Fayose organised local hunters from the 16 local government areas of the state and charged them with the responsibility of defending Ekiti against herders.

Read more: ‘Islamic war of expansion’ underpins ‘religious cleansing’ in southern Kaduna.

*Dr. Atta Barkindo, Deputy Director at the Kuka Centre, has written extensively on violence in central and northeast Nigeria.